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Resolving the Pacifica Crisis Revisited


Michael Albert

When

an institution like Pacifica devolves into dysfunctional infighting involving

police interventions, lock outs, firings and protest resignations, rallies and

recirminations, many possible causes invite investigation. 

  • Perhaps

    individuals at Pacifica are abusing their positions or have otherwise lost

    touch with their responsibilities. 

  • Or

    perhaps some discordant features of Pacifica’s agenda or process have grown

    stale or otherwise outdated. 

  • Or

    perhaps the daily Pacifica strife and conflict derive directly from

    functioning in the hostile U.S. environment. 

  • Or

    perhaps Pacifica’s defining attributes themselves have generated its

    conflicts.

To

determine Pacifica’s true situation and if there is a constructive way forward

we might first ask what should all progressives and leftists be able to

minimally and uncontroversially agree on regarding Pacifica’s situation? Trying

to be as impartial as I can, I come up with this list: 

  1. That

    Pacifica has vast potential and huge resources allowing the possibility of

    addressing a significant percentage of the U.S. population, and that while

    Pacifica has historically made great contributions to progressive media

    outreach, its product ultimately falls far short of what its assets ought to

    facilitate. Trying to collectively narrow that gap is a priority.

  2. That

    the conflicts at Pacifica arise from many factors including (but not limited

    to) the authoritarian decision making of its administrators over the past

    few years (firing employees, censoring shows, going into stations and

    changing locks in the dead of night, badgering and harassing people,

    creating a climate of fear and intimidation, etc.), the unwillingness of

    some employees (quite awhile back) to consider diverse changes in the

    interests of Pacifica’s growth, the inappropriateness of some outdated

    agendas and shows and the difficulty of eliminating them, and the inevitable

    difficulty of working in a sea of oppressive social pressures from without.

  3. That

    at a minimum, if Pacifica should function even in part under the auspices of

    an authoritative board of directors, surely that board ought to represent

    Pacifica’s audience, supporters, workforce, and the broad progressive and

    left communities that have sustained and benefited from Pacifica over the

    years – and not be composed instead of sports team owners, strike breakers,

    and real estate agents, now typically included among and even dominating

    decisions on the Pacifica board.

  4. That

    Pacifica’s conflicts have become so exacerbated that trust and cooperation

    within and around Pacifica is largely worn out.

  5. That

    pursuing culpability for the past few years firings, censoring, and reactive

    recriminations, and for those occuring daily, now, at WBAI is unimportant

    compared to bringing Pacifica’s product into accord with its potential.

  6. That

    Pacifica’s renewal can only occur via changes in many facets of Pacifica’s

    operations.

Okay,

suppose we could all agree on the above six points, recognizing that beyond

them, in the details, there are many disagreements, of course. Now what? 

One

of the difficulties of trying to relate to this battle from a distance has been

the absence of clear, shared, and definitive positive aspirations among those

dissenting from Pacifica. From outside the fray, however, here’s what seem to be

the issues in dispute: 

  • The

    role and sway of the overseeing board, assuming it persists at all,

    including who is on it, and the allocation of decision-making power within

    and over Pacifica more generally.

  • What

    to do with underutilized assets.

  • The

    basic norms and aims of the station regarding programming, evaluating

    content, seeking audience, fund raising, and just plain old interrelations

    among employees, employee rights, etc.

  • Pacifica’s

    job definitions for both paid and unpaid participants, and the power that

    each position has over work life and programming, etc.

    Remuneration and rights, including union rights, for different employees

Given

the complexity, a precondition for even seeing a possible route forward is no

doubt a clear set of demands regarding these and any other points in dispute. 

That

said, and again from well outside the fray, and now venturing into my own

analysis of the events, it seems to me that a very important potential virtue of

the Pacifica conflict is that it raises the question should our institutions be

organized with divisions of labor, pay rates, and decision making methods that

elevate a few and that subordinate the many (always embodying unjust corporate

values and providing the conditions for fierce competition, repression, and

recrimination as well)? Or should our institutions reject corporate norms, just

as we reject racist and sexist norms? In other words, the Pacifica struggle is

at least in part about class and power relations inside our movement

organizations, not just about who fills what board positions or what

personalities people strive to have while doing their daily work, as important

as these personal choices can be.

Many

of Pacifica’s critics urge the need for thorough change to uproot corporate

norms and roles. If this is undertaken, it will surely  have implications

for a great many other progressive and left institutions with similar

corporatist misallocations of power and economic privilege in their structural

definitions. If Pacifica needs revamping due to its internal corporatization

being inappropriate for a progressive institution, then why not — fill in the

blank — also? Good question.

We

all ought to welcome this type inquiry and progress, it seems to me. And

avoiding it, I have argued for a few years now, in favor of paying attention

only to proximate threats and abuses, simply misses the point. Trying to punish

or redress yesterday’s grievance is not wrong, but it is superficial, ignoring

root causes, whereas what is needed requires going much deeper. 

On

the other hand, it isn’t hard to understand why folks might worry about the

effects that such changes could have on their own power and circumstance in

their own institutions, or worry about the turmoil that trying to transcend

corporate structures could have on our on-going operations. Predictably,

therefore, many of our more corporately structured print projects have been

organizationally quiet about or supportive of managerial prerogatives at

Pacifica. And similarly, predictably many well meaning leftists concerned about

the possibility of over-enthusiastically tearing apart the most powerful single

vehicle for progressive communication in the U.S. in the name of improving it,

urge at most calm changes or even a stoic return to business as usual. 

But

the trouble is, both these approaches, minimal reformism and stoicism, however

well motivated, will yield at best only the status quo ante, a far cry from

fully utilizing Pacifica’s assets for progressive ends. And more, neither would

solve Pacifica’s travails in an exemplary way that charts a path forward for the

whole progressive community. And most of all, in fact, at this point even a

cursury look tells us that short of overhaul that gets to the root of problems,

Pacifica is going to hell in a hand cart.

In

a July/August 1999 Z editorial we wrote that:

"At

Pacifica we have a struggle being waged between people doing the bulk of the

work and people consuming the product, on one side, and managers and what are

virtually "owners," on the other side, over the class structure, the

remuneration patterns, the job definitions, and especially the decision making

allocations inside the institution. So given this, when are leftists going to

support those fighting for change and even more to take the lessons from this

case and extend them into so many others where they are equally valid and

important to pursue? When are we going to say, hey, not only should we not

allow racist or sexist or homophobic role definitions and decision-making

presuppositions and structures into our projects and movements – we shouldn’t

allow classist structures or behavioral biases there either, even if it means

we have to fight against entrenched leaderships to make that change?

That’s

what’s at stake at Pacifica. People shouldn’t go berserk about it, trying to

create perfect institutions overnight and in the process creating so much

turmoil and hurt that we do more harm than good. But at the other prevalent

extreme, passively permitting our institutions to be structural carbon copies

of what we claim to hate is also wrong. Let’s be clear, this means that if

other media institutions in particular are going to take a principled and

thorough stand regarding Pacifica, they will have to take the same stand

vis-à-vis themselves–which is what should happen and why this struggle is so

important."

So

what can be done?

Given

the bitter hostility within Pacifica’s camps — and really, folks need to

understand that this isn’t rhetoric, these people are in a kind of warlike

situation regarding one another — those who seek a rejuvenated, redefined, and

exemplary Pacifica, need to continue to educate and agitate, of course, but

there needs to be a new wrinkle. Their positive aims have got to be made

evident. There must be clear and succinct, demands which, if met, would move us

from a condition of struggle to one of renewal.

Instead

of a "Save Pacifica" battle being waged against each specific

violation of progressive values by Pacifica’s management, the battle for a

renewed Pacifica needs to be waged under a rubric such as "Make Our

Movement Reflect Our Aspirations – Pacifica First," and it needs to have

clear principles and demands that would permit rank-and-file progressives all

over the country to understand what’s at stake and to say: "Hold on, those

principles make sense. Of course our organizations should reflect our

aspirations rather than mimicking the structure of Time Magazine, NBC, the State

Department, or General Motors. We should support the Pacifica struggle, and you

know what, we should patiently and calmly and constructively address the

inadequacies of other institutions, too."

This

is how the effort to rid the progressive community of racism and sexism in our

institutions was waged, at least at its best, and how it is still waged, for

that matter. And it is how, in parallel, the effort to rid the progressive

community of classism and authoritarianism in our institutions needs to be

waged, assuming we are to have any chance against the objections many leaders

will raise against such innovations.

So

where can the specific demands sought by the movements seeking Pacifica’s

renewal come from such that they capture the imagination not only of Pacifica

dissidents, but of the broad rank and file constituencies of progressive

sentiment in the U.S.?

One

possibility is to convene a panel of respected representatives from various

progressive constituencies to examine Pacifica’s recent history and put forward

comprehensive proposals for changes to end the current strife and to establish a

firm foundation for future progress. Such a panel would meet, hire a small

staff, assemble information about Pacifica including interacting with relevant

involved parties, arrive at proposals for Pacifica’s renewal, refine the

proposals in light of feedback from various directions, and offer them publicly.

What

would be the short-term changes advocated by such a panel? I don’t know. Maybe

it would call for a new board with a third being elected representatives of

employees, a third elected representatives of listener-donors, and a third

elected representatives of diverse progressive movement groups. Perhaps it would

call for a clear statement of political and journalistic values, for a

commitment to outreach without compromising content, for norms regarding

diversity, and for (I would hope) changes to job definitions designed to instill

a culture and practice of democracy and workers self management throughout the

institution.

Whatever

such a panel came up with as goals and proposed demands, could it enforce

compliance by the parties at Pacifica? No, of course not. But it could at least

establish a positive agenda, widely supported by public dissent and

demonstration, which could then inform and perhaps galvanize the movement for

innovation at Pacifica, thereby helping to engender a viable resolution.

But

the issue is even bigger than that. 

Imagine

that our movement institutions were run by boards of overseers, managers, and

bosses who by their backgrounds, their other occupations, their culture,

manners, style, and commitments evidenced as their foremost allegiance serving

patriarchy and/or fostering racism. Would we anticipate that those organizations

and movements would appeal greatly to women, blacks and Latinos? No, of course

not. By the same logic, having subordinated the vast majority of our

organizations to professional managers, owners, fund raisers, big donors, and

overseer boards of everything from real estate agents to strike breaking CEOs,

as well as having incorporated inside our organizations hierarchical

remunerative and decision making norms little different from those that workers

suffer in society at large, we should not be surprised that our efforts aren’t

trumpeted and celebrated by the working class.

To

lose Pacifica, our loudest and broadest media tool, would be the height of

stupid, suicidal politics for the left. Therefore, at a minimum, serious reforms

have got to be engineered. But more, at some point we need to democratize and

de-class all our projects, so why not turn adversity into accomplishment and

take the first big steps here and now?

 

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